Risk-Ready Leadership

Three distinguished participants from Singapore’s 8th Leaders in Governance Programme share insights on how the public sector can embrace a more complex and uncertain world.


Mr Nikhil Seth, Executive Director, United Nations Institute for Training and Research

Ms Stephanie Foster, Deputy Public Service Commissioner, Australian Public Service Commission

Mr Said Faisal, Executive Director, ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster

On Important Developments in the Public Sector Today

Seth: In an earlier era, the relationship between the political leadership, the civil service and the ublic was based on benevolence, but this is no longer the case — information technology and social media have changed governance forever. Governments and civil services have had to be much more responsive to people’s concerns, which have become much more apparent, demanding more urgent attention. This dramatic shift, from official benevolence to responsiveness to citizens’ concerns, is the major defining feature of public service today.

Foster: In Australia, the focus has been on the need for public service to be agile and flexible — features which haven’t been traditionally associated with bureaucratic, hierarchical organisations. This is about being flexible and adaptive both in terms of the way in which we respond to a changing public environment, as well as the way we work with each other. We’ve talked a lot about the need to work across government, and working genuinely with citizens, private sector and non-profit sectors. So it’s moving away from what Nikhil terms an environment of benevolence towards one of more genuine co-creation, to use a current buzzword.

The question is no longer about managing the risk, but living with the risk.

This has enormous challenges for organisations that have not been used to working like that. But it also has enormous benefits, in the way we have been nudging the public to serve themselves — a concept more familiar in Singapore than in many other countries — so that we can meet the demand for service that is immediate, responsive and delivered in a way people want without expanding the public service. By harnessing the power of a more capable, educated public, we can, together, deliver a much higher level of service, and achieve all of the things that we want to do.

Said: At the end of the day, it is about what results we want to achieve. When you change the business model or your approach, you have to bear in mind whether the results you desire are achievable. I’m always worried when we change processes simply because others are changing the process, just so we can join the club. But if this is at the expense of the results we want, then I think we have to differ. We have to understand what works for us — we cannot let the process become the objective in itself. I think there will be trade-offs.

With all the rapid changes in the world, the question is no longer about managing the risk, but living with the risk. In this context, the ability to adapt becomes important — but adapting also entails sacrifice, changing the way we do things, which is the toughest thing to do. People understand that there is no victory without sacrifice. Good leaders will define what victory means, and what the cost is.

Seth: The purpose of governance is to enhance the wellbeing of your citizenry. But public well being is a very complex interplay of forces which act upon peoples’ economic aspirations, as well as social aspirations. People want decent jobs. They want security. They want opportunities. But they also want their families to do well. They want to move up the social ladder. They want to overcome discrimination, explicit or implicit. They want to live in a good environment, with peace and security.

All these forces act so indivisibly across various spheres that the issues have to be seen in their complexity and to be tackled simultaneously in order to enhance well-being.

In the past, we have tackled these forces in certain silos. There are ministries that look after economic prosperity, employment; others look after social inclusion, law and order, and so on. But all these forces act so indivisibly across various spheres that the issues have to be seen in their complexity and to be tackled simultaneously in order to enhance well-being. The old silo approaches of segmenting economic issues, social issues, environmental issues and peace and security issues are no longer possible.

So the ability of governance to see inter-relationships and to optimise policy, to see where resources are best spent, so that these complex forces which act upon the individual can be simultaneously addressed, is the key challenge in most governance systems and in all societies and economies today.

On Balancing Short- and Long-Term Public Goals

Foster: For any country, but particularly those of us who are relatively small, having the agility to uphold competing priorities and drivers and manage them all simultaneously will become critical to our success. Like Singapore, we shouldn’t ever let ourselves be forced into binary choices.

In the Singaporean context, what I found striking was the importance and the extent of alignment between the elected government, the civil service and the people. Obviously that is partly to do with having the same party in power for so long.

But often in Australia, we bemoan the difficulty we have sustaining long-term planning and in fact, we’re working very hard to reskill our public service to not blame politics for stopping them from doing what is our real job, which is to plan long-term sustained futures in all of our policy areas.

Policy without execution is hallcunication.

Like anything in life, you got to work with what you have, and so if ministers or governments have particular political drivers, then you’ve got to find a way of achieving the best you can within that framework. Part of our job as civil servants is to give the government options that they can work with, rather than saying this is the ideal, but we are never going to get that through because the politics will interfere. It’s one of the biggest challenges but also one of the most exciting things about public sector work: to get the best solution possible through the politics of the day.

Seth: In many of our countries, the political discourse is being hijacked — the whole political conversation ends up being about peripheral issues. But Singapore has managed to keep the political discourse around the well-being of its people, on looking ahead, and the different approaches of getting there, so you can have a vision for the next fifty years — that’s the kind of planning most countries need but short-term politics don’t allow to happen. Nevertheless, the forces that are driving change in the world will have a deep impact, and they need to be planned for now.

Said: The model of long-term planning in Singapore is about anticipating change. Long-term planning is not just a slogan, but a carefully designed, robust process with many stakeholders. It is also oriented towards producing outcomes we want, not long-term planning for its own sake. But I think what separates good from average is the discipline of execution, which is lacking in many other countries. The general assumption is that those at the high level focus on the big picture, the softer aspects. But we have learnt is that whether you are high level or low, you need to understand what it takes to get things done. You can have great plans or ideas but it’s the discipline of execution that makes a difference between one organisation to another, one country to another. Policy without execution is hallucination. Everyone feels good about it but actually nothing happens.

The two things that leaders really need to be good at, and cannot delegate away, are the questions of “what” and of “why”.

This is where good leadership makes the difference. A good leader tells you what victory looks like, and what it will take to get there. You can let market mechanisms work, in which you get good leaders sometimes, and different leaders at other times. But I believe good leadership is manufactured — it is a deliberate process, at all levels. This is why the Civil Service College in Singapore is remarkable: it is a system for creating public sector leaders.

Foster: Many people and many organisations tend to make a choice between being either thinkers or doers; focused on the future or focused on details. All of these are equally important and without all of these elements, you get a far less desirable result. Not any one person will have all of those things, but it’s our responsibility to make sure they are in the system. Leaders bring that all together.

On Desired Qualities of Leadership

Seth: Care and responsiveness are two qualities which are to me emblematic of great leadership. Through being caring and being responsive, good leaders create an atmosphere of trust; people trust in the decisions you make. This is important, because tough decisions require trade-offs and sacrifices. If the people are convinced that this is happening for their well-being and welfare, and the leader cares for them and is trying to build trust with them, I think the society will do well.

Said: In the end, the two things that leaders really need to be good at, and cannot delegate away, are the questions of “what” and of “why”. They are difficult questions: “Why do we want to achieve as you wish?”; “What do you want to see in the next five years?”; “What does Singapore want to be in the next 50 years?”. Leaders really need to understand the “what” and the “why”. You can delegate the “how” — it is technical. But the “what” and the “why” need to be solid.

We need a sense that constructive engagement with risk is what makes us relevant and responsive.

Foster: Public servants can fall into the habit of thinking that they are all about the “how”, while the political masters determine the direction, which we just implement. But the vision in Singapore is one of the public service in partnership with the government to shape the country’s future. This means that the public service has a responsibility to actually help determine the “what”, and then equipping people to do the “how” really well.

In that regard, we need leaders who are blazing the trail, not following the past in different guises. It goes to what was raised earlier about the question of risk, and how every success involves sacrifice. In the public services, I think is important to learn to embrace risks, and engage with risk as a core part of our business, not as something to manage on the side. At one point during the LGP course, we talked about not being firefighters but venture capitalists. Venture capitalists operate by taking risk, by doing it sensibly, methodically, with a good evidence base and so on. Fundamentally, they have to be at the forefront in order to succeed at all.

In the same way, we need the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the public sector. We need a sense that constructive engagement with risk is what makes us relevant and responsive, rather than being averse to risk and treating it like the scary monster in the closet. If we can crack this as a public service, as part of being good leaders, it will propel us into the future.

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted by ETHOS Editor-in-Chief Alvin Pang in September 2015 with a group of participants in the 8th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP) (24 August to 1 September 2015). Organised annually by the Civil Service College, the LGP draws from Singapore’s development experience to offer practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the seven-day programme, participants interact with senior government officials and thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.